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Endorsement or Warning?

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Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Starring Gemma Arterton, Jeremy Renner, Famke Janssen

THE LAND OF FAIRY TALES AND NIGHTMARES: Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner star in the children’s classic gone awry. Courtesy photo.

THE LAND OF FAIRY TALES AND NIGHTMARES: Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner star in the children’s classic gone awry. Courtesy photo.

There’s a certain art to tak-ing a classic tale and modernizing it for more contemporary audiences. Making something hip from something antiquated is nothing new. “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” is the latest effort to take a known story and turn the whole thing on its head. The once classic children’s tale has been transformed into an R-rated action spectacle that manages to avoid being terrible thanks to an unapologetic presentation and a general urge to entertain.

When I started watching “Hansel and Gretel” I immediately thought of films like Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm” and Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.” They share the same aesthetic and have a similar look and feel, almost as if the production designer worked every film. “Hansel and Gretel” is smart enough to abandon any and all pretensions of being something other than a schlock picture. To its credit, that’s the only thing that saves it. The film feels a lot like a personal favorite, “Army of Darkness.” While it doesn’t allow itself to be as ridiculous as Sam Raimi’s masterpiece, it’s a movie that understands the ludicrousness of its premise and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The story is familiar: Two little kids, Hansel and Gretel, get lost in the woods. They find a house made of candy and are lured in by a witch. Turns out the candy house is a trap, and the kids are going to be served as the main course. Fortunately, they turn the tide, throw the witch in the oven and put the heat on high. The witch is dead and the kids follow a trail of breadcrumbs home, but the kids don’t stop there. It seems they’ve taken their predicmant rather seriously, and devote their lives to hunting down every wicked witch to dispatch in the most brutal manner possible. Out go the leather-clad brother-and-sister team from town to town to make a living in the witch-killing business. I’m guessing their insurance premiums are through the roof.

While hunting down another evil witch, they discover their parents were murdered. Gretel is taken by a coven of witches, and Hansel has to save her with the help of some new friends he’s made along the way. Including a comely good witch he’s fallen for.

Good witches? Has the world gone mad?

There’s a lot of supernatural craziness at play: blood-moon rituals, ancient spells and lots of really bad makeup. Sure, it’s a stupid movie, but it’s an unapologetically stupid movie. It’s hard not to laugh at scenes where witches are being mowed down with a Gatling gun, or at moments when qualified actors like Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker,” “Avengers”) try and deliver the most heinous dialogue put to paper. I’m not sure whether I should pity good actors appearing in trash or praise them.

The film is really a flimsy excuse for some gonzo action sequences. There’s some wonderful brutality on display. I credit the filmmakers for going with an R rating and letting things get a little gory. Plus, there’s an inherent amount of humor in hearing our heroes drop the occasional F-bomb when things get a little weird.

Frankly, I’m amazed something like “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” actually got made. On paper, there is so much inherently wrong with a movie like this. It feels like an anomaly, the kind of movie one would reference as a fake film in a movie about Hollywood. I felt the same way about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which may as well be a spiritual predecessor to this hot mess. The concept is so crazy, one would think somewhere along the line from script to screen, someone would have murdered it. Yet, here it is, being proudly displayed in 3D for audiences to marvel. This monstrosity, this albatross hung around the audience’s neck. I will give credit to those responsible for its existence, and I will give further credit to writer and director Tommy Wirkola for his Raimi-inspired insanity. Still, it’s a very flawed and often mind-boggling experience. Take that as a ringing endorsement or a stern warning.

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